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Burns' widow writes

Pauline McLean | 19:17 UK time, Monday, 25 January 2010

American academic Nancy Groce knows the exact moment she became determined to donate a rare letter from Robert Burns' widow Jean Armour to the National Libraries of Scotland.

"I phoned a Burns archive and the archivist was adamant that Jean Armour couldn't have written it because she was probably illiterate.

"She wasn't illiterate. She was a mother, too busy to write. So I made up my mind that if the letter was genuine, I'd donate it to a public collection."

And true to her word, Dr Groce arrived in Scotland this week to hand over the letter - aptly enough, on Burns Night.

There are only two known letters by Jean Armour - and until today, the National Library of Scotland only had a copy of this one.

Although short, it offers fresh insight into a woman, known physically through the sharp, suspicious features of her most famous portrait, and in folklore as the nagging wife, who sat at home waiting for her errant husband to return from his various dalliances.

But in this letter, she's both stoic and dignified since the recipient is one of her husband's beautiful former muses.

Cate Newtown of the National Library of Scotland points out that the Burns family would have been at the centre of 19th century celebrity interest.

Fans of Robert Burns would regularly call at their Dumfries home.

But Jean was using all those connections to further her sons' education and careers - one entrusted to the sheriff of London, another is in school thanks to a wealthy benefactor.

Only three of their five sons survived. Francis died the previous year, aged just 13 or 14.

Even more heartbreaking is the little postscript that the baby Maxwell Burns - born the day of his father's funeral - died too, shortly before his third birthday.

But while the letter sheds more light on the Burns family, it does leave a few unanswered questions.

No-one can ascertain how the letter got from the recipient Maria Riddell in Dumfries to a junk store in the United States.

The previous owner in the US and the man who gave a copy of the letter to the archive are both named Armour but it's unclear whether they're related to each other or to Jean Armour.

Both Dr Groce and the National Library of Scotland hope they'll receive more information when the letter goes on display in Scotland later this year.


  • Comment number 1.

    Can anyone explain how the letter was authenticated? as a historian and genealogist I'm keenly aware that in Scotland prior to the advent of civil registration of births deaths and marriages, wives retained their own surname. I'd therefore expect to see the letter signed by Jean Armour, rather than by Jean Burns.

  • Comment number 2.

    #1 Caledonian54
    You are incorrect. It has ever been so that you could choose the name by which you were known and this is the basis of the use of alias in Scots law. However, this was the time that forms of address were changing. The honorific Mistress X, Y or Z given to females over the age of puberty was changing as it became fashionable to claim status as Mrs X. In this case, however she was known to her various acquaintances, Jean would be emphasising her right to the use of the Burns surname as his legitimate widow.


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